Monday, December 13, 2010

How to Write a Dogoir

Due to unforeseen circumstances, there has been a minor delay in the release of Letters to Juniper, which is now scheduled for early 2011.

I don’t normally discuss my works-in-progress—or WIPs. I’m making an exception with this one for two reasons: a) I need blog fodder – just kidding – sort of; and b) the manuscript I’m working on is already published – sort of.

“Crazy Bitch” began two years ago as a series on my blog, From the Styx, after my dog Venus was diagnosed with Canine Compulsive Disorder (CCD). Frustrated at the lack of information and/or case studies available, I decided to make Venus a case study.

I have compiled all those blog posts and I’m re-writing them into book form. A dog story. A memoir. In an interview, Julie Klam, author of “You Had Me at Woof”, used the term “dogoir”. Works for me.

When I began the blog series, I planned all along to put them into book form. To prepare, I read every dog story I could get my hands on. I researched and read countless articles on memoir writing. At the same time I was researching dog behavior, psychology, and training, plus keeping up with CCD research, and every day life with two giant dogs that didn’t always get along. No matter how well I knew the genre or my subject, nothing prepared me for the process.

My other books are fiction, which is not to say I haven’t written nonfiction. I have written articles and blog posts – just not a memoir. This is a big switch for me. At first I didn’t think it would be any big deal to take the blog posts, re-write them and put them into a book. Wrong. I am not re-writing a character’s story. I am re-writing my beloved dog’s story. And since it’s from my POV it’s also my story, which is the memoir part.

Digging up the past two years and working through it has proven to be more of challenge than I had expected. For one thing it’s a slow process. In re-telling actual events in my own life it’s easy to get bogged down in the details. I find I have to adopt a mindset before I sit down with the work. I have to practice distancing myself from myself – as in the character of me, or the “I” in the story. See what I mean? It can get confusing. Luckily I have written a couple novels in first person. With a memoir, it’s just the opposite. Instead of getting into character, I have to get out of character. Then I am better able to recognize which details are important to the story.

Truth is another big issue with memoir. For what is truth? My World Book dictionary says truth is “the fact or facts; matter or circumstance as it really is”. Let’s face it “circumstance as it really is” can often be tedious and boring. The writer-in-me wants to go all James Frey and embellish the hell out of the facts. The “I” character balks at saying words she never said or doing things she didn’t do. Yet, the writer-in-me argues, in a memoir, the truth is limited to how the “I”-character perceives it. It could be an even better story if the writer-in-me incorporates my 20/20 hindsight omniscience into the picture and stirs things up a bit. Because I am a fiction writer I suspect it will be a constant struggle through this process. But in this case, the truth is pretty well covered by my own blog posts. I’m glad I have them as a basis for the re-write. They keep the writer-in-me honest.

Peggy Tibbetts

Coming in 2011 –

My books

My blogs:
Advice from a Caterpillar
From the Styx


  1. Interesting post, Peggy. I would have no idea how to write a memoir. Writing about your dog's health disorder sounds like a good idea. A lot of people, doggie lovers especially, should want to know more about it. Or they might recognize the symptoms in their own pets and then know what to do to help them.

  2. Thanks Beverly, that's the reason I'm writing it. So many readers wrote to me personally and said the blog series helped them deal with behavior problems with their dogs.

  3. I started to write a memoir of my life growing up as a teen with a violent bipolar father. I wrote and read scenes from it to my classmates at UCIrvine writing class. It helped as it made me realize that though I got the graphic parts down I was missing an important part: emotion. Also my one professor told me to find something good about my father, which at the time was really hard. She's the one that helped me realize that so-called villians need to be fleshed or else the reader doesn't care.

    Another hard thing for me was the whole privacy issue. My mother worries on what I will write as she feels this will make her out to be a bad mother. So though I've gotten some interest from a couple agents on finishing this, I've been holding off. It's been very painful and emotionally draining to write. But I will finish it.

  4. I think my husband's stepfather's dog has CCD. I want to say that they told me he does, but my memory is fogging. He's a tiny poodle mix and does this 'catching' flies thing,where he snaps at the air, and it's a compulsion for him. He can't stop. It doesn't affect his quality of life, fortunately, but it's pretty mild.

    Sounds like a really interesting book!

  5. Kim,
    Emotion is a an important ingredient in writing memoir. However for the writer it is often the most painful part. Try to separate your writer self from your child self. It's a mental exercise. You CAN do it.

  6. Christine,
    Yes, the poodle you describe does have a mild case of CCD. Medication can help. Usually clomicalm or clomipramine. My Venus had severe CCD with aggression, which is much more complicated.